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UFC 288 takeaways: Aljamain Sterling, Belal Muhammad demand respect amid MMA’s eternal sea of negativity

Aljamain Sterling is still king. “The Funkmaster” notched his third consecutive defense of the UFC bantamweight title on Saturday, edging out Henry Cejudo with a split decision in the main event of UFC 288, which took place Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Sterling’s victory derailed Cejudo’s grand comeback plans and headlined a night that also saw Belal Muhammad defeat Gilbert Burns on short notice, plus a whole lot more.

With so much to discuss, let’s hit our five biggest takeaways from UFC 288.

1. At this point, the polarization of Aljamain Sterling’s title reign has become one of the great wonders of the MMA world. It’s really something to behold.

Sterling’s style? Ugly yet ultra-effective. His résumé? Among the more encumbered by footnotes in recent memory yet also among the most impressive in the 13-year history of the UFC bantamweight division. He’s someone who gets booed in a main event in his own backyard yet is also the current standard-bearer for UFC success in the northeastern U.S. scene. Even now, I guarantee at least 50 percent of the people reading this paragraph are calling me a moron who’s giving Sterling too much credit. No champion over the past three years has managed to convince both their skeptics and supporters so consistently of being on the right side of history as the UFC bantamweight king. But the numbers don’t lie — and Sterling’s numbers at 135 pounds have quietly reached a league of their own.

His split decision win over Henry Cejudo at UFC 288 gave Sterling ownership over three significant divisional records. The most wins in UFC bantamweight history (14)? The longest win streak in UFC bantamweight history (9)? The most consecutive title defenses in UFC bantamweight history (3)? You guessed it: They all belong to “The Funkmaster.”

Gaze around on this Sunday morning, though, and that same old nitpicking is as omnipresent as ever. In fact, UFC 288 was perhaps the most Aljo way for things to play out. The champ beat Cejudo in nearly every statistical category that matters — 135-99 in significant strikes, 186-143 in total strikes, even 4-3 in takedowns — yet he somehow would’ve lost his belt had judge Derek Cleary scored Round 5 for Cejudo like every other person with functioning eyeballs.

Same as his two fights with Petr Yan and his run-in with T.J. Dillashaw, it’s just never quite as clean with Sterling as it feels it should be, even if that’s often through no fault of his own.

So let’s be clear: The right man won on Saturday. I had it 48-47 in favor of the champ on my scorecard, with Sterling winning rounds one, three, and four, and Cejudo taking rounds two and five. It was an admirable performance all things considered, one that left Cejudo scratching his head at how unexpectedly difficult it was to solve Sterling’s awkward puzzle.

But therein lies the dichotomy of the UFC bantamweight champion.

“He’s tougher than I thought,” Cejudo said post-fight. “You watch him fight and you’re like, ‘Eh, there’s a lot of openings.’ But he’s a gamer.”

That one line sums up the entirety of Sterling’s three-year reign at the top. He remains one of the most underrated and underappreciated great talents in MMA. Like him or not, his accomplishments stand alone — even if the methods by which those accomplishments play out in real-time tends to leave plenty of “yeah but” ammunition on the table. I’m fascinated to see what the conversations about Sterling look like in 20 years, because if he can secure the bag against Sean O’Malley and extend his title defense record to four before moving up to 145 pounds, few bantamweights will have a reign more saddled with nuance — but just the same, few bantamweights will have a more impressive looking Wikipedia page.

1b. By the way, shout out to Merab Dvalishvili. Sterling’s teammate and heir apparent improbably left the Prudential Center as the MVP of the night after stealing O’Malley’s Thriller jacket during the commotion caused by Sterling and O’Malley’s in-cage faceoff.

This video is objectively hilarious. You’re a king, Merab. A king.

2. When the UFC first announced Saturday’s co-main event, Belal Muhammad was still in the midst of observing Ramadan, the month-long dawn-to-sunset fast practiced by millions of Muslims around the world. Not only was UFC 288 less than three weeks away, Muhammad was the furthest thing from fight ready. It was a pure all-in move. We all know the stark truth — that Muhammad would’ve had to win 30 fights in a row before the UFC allowed him back into the title picture if this weekend had gone poorly. And that’s the thing. Muhammad just risked five years of momentum on short notice and with a bum ankle against a verified killer in a spot where his title hopes would’ve been forever tanked with a bad night.

Whether you enjoyed his five-round rout over a one-armed Gilbert Burns or not, the man is a proper No. 1 contender, and he deserves respect.

Dana White already confirmed that Muhammad locked in his place against the winner of Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington. That fight likely isn’t happening until October or November, so Muhammad is staring at a layoff until the first quarter of 2024 at the earliest — which leaves plenty of time (too much) for UFC chicanery to rewrite this script. If Shavkat Rakhmonov manages to demolish Kamaru Usman later this year (or something big of that ilk), Muhammad may not be the first person to find out how flimsy White’s promises can be.

But 10 straight fights without a loss is still 10 straight fights without a loss, so Muhammad is right: Much like Sterling, if you’re still denying him at this point, you’re just a hater.

3. If the UFC is ever going to return to China, Yan Xiaonan just gave it the biggest gift imaginable. Xiaonan’s one-shot knockout was the most explosive highlight of Saturday’s pay-per-view card. Improbably, the woman who strode into the weekend with zero UFC finishes over the past six years found a way to Andrade™ Jessica Andrade, a scene eerily reminiscent of Stipe Miocic’s off-the-back-foot stunner over Fabricio Werdum back in 2016. Andrade charged in lobbing her best Wanderlei Silva impersonation and Xiaonan caught the Brazilian with the picture-perfect counter right hand. You couldn’t draw it up any better.

Weili Zhang vs. Xiaonan is suddenly a potential monster main event for a UFC business trip to China. Strawweight is in a rare spot right now without a clear No. 1 contender, so the brass must be praising the blood gods to have a matchup like this fall right into their laps.

It’s the layup of all layups. I’ll be stunned if the promotion doesn’t capitalize.

4. Look, it won’t be a shock if Saturday was the last time we see Kron Gracie in the UFC. The former jiu-jitsu champ embodied every ounce of that old Gracie stubbornness at UFC 288 — copious butt-scooting, irrational adherence to a one-note game, and a total reluctance to even begin to accept that striking and wrestling may be integral parts of MMA. Many wondered whether “Ice Cream Kron” used his four-year layoff to address the many holes in his game that availed themselves so thoroughly in his loss to Cub Swanson. The answer? A resounding no. Even against a .500 fighter like Charles Jourdain — who was vying for his own UFC livelihood on Saturday night — Gracie’s dedication to an old-school game two decades past its sell-by date remained unwavering in the year of our Lord 2023.

The Kron Gracie experiment was fun while it lasted, but it’s obvious at this point that he doesn’t belong in the UFC.

That being said ... is it too much to ask for a Kron Gracie vs. Ryan Hall matchup before we bail on this adventure for good? That fight goes either one of three ways: We get the worst kickboxing match of all-time, 15 minutes of boobirds and butt-scooting hilarity, or a grappling haven that winds up being the second coming of Maia vs. Shields.

I’m a glutton for punishment, I know. I just need to see it, that’s all.

5. I’m rarely the guy who touts moral victories, especially in fight sports where the consequences of a loss — no matter how hard-fought — can be unforgiving both physically and financially. But if ever there was a moral victory worth celebrating, it’s what Diego Lopes pulled off at UFC 288. I haven’t been shy with my proclamations of Movsar Evloev being a key piece in the future featherweight title picture; this division eventually runs through either one or both of him and Ilia Topuria. But despite riding into Saturday on just a few days’ notice, Lopes gave the undefeated Russian absolute hell — very nearly scoring one of the upsets of the year with an array of nail-bitingly close submission attempts and never once allowing Evloev to feel comfortable in there, leading UFC president Dana White to reassure the UFC rookie during his post-fight march: “You lost nothing tonight.”

White isn’t wrong. Lopes’ short-notice debut had shades of Arman Tsarukyan giving Islam Makhachev everything he could handle in 2019 — or, for the older crowd, Lando Vannata nearly nuking the legendary run of Tony Ferguson back in 2016. That obviously doesn’t guarantee future success; Tsarukyan quickly established himself as a top-10 lightweight, but Vannata never fulfilled the promise he showed against Ferguson. Lopes’ fate could swing either way, but he made damn sure we’ll all be paying attention his next time out.

For a 7-to-1 underdog, that’s a win.

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